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Real Estate Expense Recoveries—What are they, how do they work? (part 1)

If you’ve gotten involved as a landlord or tenant with non-residential real estate, such as retail or office buildings, then you have probably encountered a phenomenon that may go by any of several names: expense recoveries, expense reimbursements, pass-throughs, or common area maintenance (CAM) charges. What exactly is this phenomenon and how does it work?

The typical commercial lease will specify a base rent, sometimes as a dollar amount per month or year, but more often as an annual number of dollars per rentable square foot of space occupied by the tenant. Many leases also call for additional rent over the base amount in the form of expense reimbursements.

How it Works—The Math

Let’s take a simple example. Say that you own a single-tenant property with 10,000 rentable square feet. The lease specifies a base rent of \$30 per square foot. It also says that the tenant is obligated to reimburse you, the landlord, for all property taxes in excess of \$4,000 per year. The \$4,000 cut-off is called an expense stop.

In the first year of the lease, the total property tax bill is \$12,000. How much will the tenant pay during the first year? Start with the base rent:

area x rate = base rent

10,000 square feet x \$30 per sf = \$300,000 base rent

Now calculate the reimbursement:

property tax expense — expense stop = expense reimbursement

\$12,000 — \$4,000 = \$8,000 expense reimbursement

So the tenant is going to pay a total of \$308,000 in the first year.

What happens if the space is divided among multiple tenants? While the leases for these tenants could be structured in any way to which the parties agree, the most common arrangement would be to allocate the reimbursements according to each tenant’s pro-rata share of the total rentable square footage.

Let’s say now that instead of occupying the entire rentable area, the tenant we’ve been discussing takes up only 2,000 square feet and the remainder is rented to other businesses. The calculation of the base rent works just as it did before (area x rate = base rent), but the reimbursement involves an additional factor, the tenant’s pro rata share. Since the tenant occupies 2,000 of the 10,000 square feet total, its share is 20%

pro rata share x (property tax expense — expense stop)
= expense reimbursement

20% x (\$12,000 — \$4,000) = expense reimbursement

20% x \$8,000 = \$1,600 expense reimbursement

As before, we add that to the tenant’s base rent

2,000 square feet x \$30 per sf = \$60,000 base rent

to get a total of \$61,600.

In this example, we have been passing through just one expense, but the landlord and tenant can agree to pass through as many or as few as they like. Property tax is probably the most common, and a lease that has just that single reimbursement is called a net lease. If the lease passes through both taxes and insurance, it is called a net-net lease. And if it adds tenant responsibility for repairs and maintenance into the deal, it is called a triple-net lease.

How it Works—The Practical Issues

All this is nice in theory, but how does it work in practice? Does the property owner let the tenant pay the bills?

Hardly ever. If you as a property owner pass property taxes or insurance cost–or any other expense for which you are responsible–on to a tenant, what you should do is pay those expenses directly yourself and send your tenant a bill for the reimbursable amount. A moment’s reflection will make the reason for this immediately obvious. Do you really want to rely on a third party to pay your tax or insurance bill on time? What if they don’t? You’re probably already picturing the nightmare scenario, where the insurance bill was left unpaid by the tenant, and then a catastrophic uninsured loss occurred. Or the tax bill was ignored, and you end up with a lien against your property and a black mark on your credit. If it’s your bill, pay it yourself and then collect from the tenant.

More…

Now that we’ve nailed down the basic mechanics of expense reimbursements, we want to go a bit further. There are some variations we should look at, like base-year reimbursements and CAM charges; there are some accounting and presentation issues worth considering; and there is the fundamental question as to why commercial landlords and tenants follow this pass-through practice at all. Come back for Part 2 to find out more.

—-Frank Gallinelli

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Your time and your investment capital are too valuable to risk on a do-it-yourself investment spreadsheet. For more than 30 years, RealData has provided the best and most reliable real estate investment software to help you make intelligent investment decisions and to create presentations you can confidently show to lenders, clients, and equity partners. Learn more at www.realdata.com.

The Cash-on-Cash Conundrum – a Postscript

A while back, I posted a two-part series called “The Cash-on-Cash Conundrum.” In the first installment I explained the calculation and underlying logic of CoC, and in the second I discussed some of the pitfalls of overreliance on this particular measure.

I try to keep my ear to the ground by reading and sometimes contributing to investor forums, where I continue to see a good deal of discussion on the question of what is or what should be the metric of choice for real estate investors. My unofficial and unscientific gauge of the general sentiment is that most investors agree that cash flow is king. Although I would be reluctant to crown any single measure as the absolute be-all and end-all for property analysis, I agree that cash flow is indeed a critical measure of the health of an investment property.

So what’s the big deal? What concerns me is that I see a kind of tunnel vision on this topic. I frequently hear some variation of these two statements bundled together: “Cash-on-cash return is the only reliable metric and the only one I really need,” and “IRR and Discounted Cash Flow analysis are bogus – they’re a waste of time because you just can’t predict the future.” To put it simply, these folks are saying that they trust CoC because it looks at the here and now, and they distrust IRR/DCF because it tries to look into the future.

On the surface, that argument might seem reasonable enough. Cash-on-Cash return is the property’s expected first-year cash flow before taxes, divided by the amount of cash invested to make the purchase; it’s quick and easy to calculate, and it does indeed focus on a more-or-less tangible present. A strong CoC unarguably provides a good sign that your investment is off on the right foot.

Is that the end of the story – or should it be? I think this narrow focus can cause an investor to miss some vital issues.

By adopting the “can’t predict the future” argument, aren’t you ignoring what investing is all about? You don’t have a crystal ball, but still — isn’t investing about the future, and isn’t the ability to make sensible choices in an uncertain environment a key trait of the successful investor?

I find it difficult to accept the argument that I should make a decision to buy or not to buy an investment property based on its first-year cash flow alone and without regard to projections of future performance. Ironically, there is a hidden message in this point of view: If the first year performance data is sufficient, then apparently I should believe that such data will be representative of how well the property will perform all the time. In other words, it really is OK to predict the future, so long as I believe the future will always be like the present.

I would argue that it is in fact less speculative to make the kind of projections that you typically see in a Discounted Cash Flow analysis, where you look at the anticipated cash flow over a period of time and use those projections to estimate an Internal Rate of Return over the entire holding period.

With any given property, there may be items that you can forecast with a reasonable degree of confidence. For example, on the revenue side you may have commercial leases that specify the rent for five years, ten, or even more. You may even be able to anticipate a potential loss of revenue at a point in the future when a commercial lease expires and you need to deal with rollover vacancy, tenant improvements, and leasing commissions.

You could be looking at a double- or triple-net property where you are insulated from many or most of the uncertainties about future operating expenses like taxes, insurance and maintenance.

Or, with residential property, you may have a history of occupancy percentage and rent increases that permit a credible forecast of future revenue.

Then there is the more basic question, why are you analyzing this property at all? Why are you running the numbers and making this CoC calculation? Are you trying to establish a current market value, as a commercial appraiser might? Or are you trying to make a more personal decision, i.e., will this particular property possibly meet your investment goals? And what are those goals?

Seems like I just took a nice simple metric and wove it into a more complicated story. Sorry, but in your heart of hearts you know if investing really were that simple, then everyone with a pulse would be a huge success. At the same time, it doesn’t have to be so complicated either, so long as you approach it in a reasonable and orderly way.

That orderly approach begins with deciding what you are looking to get out of this investment. Maybe you want to hold it for a few years to get strong cash flow and then sell it, hopefully for a profit. Perhaps you intend to hold it long term, less concerned with immediate cash flow (so long it as it positive), and then sell the property much later to fund your children’s college costs or your own retirement. In either case, if your plan is to buy and hold then there is one thing you can’t ignore: the future.

This approach continues with projection of the revenue, expenses, potential resale, and rate-of-return metrics, running out to your intended investment horizon. Perhaps key here is the realization that you shouldn’t really expect to nail your projections with a single try. Consider several variations upon future performance: best-case, worst-case and somewhere in-between scenarios to give yourself a sense of the range of possible outcomes.

All this brings us back to the duel between the Cash-on-Cash metric and DCF/IRR. I believe if you rely only on the former, then you are not just saying, “You can’t predict the future.” You’re saying, “If the first year looks good, then that’s all I need to know.” This is, quite literally, a short-sighted investment strategy. The takeaway here is that there should be no duel between metrics at all; that prudent investors can use Cash-on-Cash to get an initial reading of the property’s immediate performance, but they should then extend their analysis to encompass the entire lifecycle of the investment. To quote the folks at NASA (who, after all, really are rocket scientists), “It takes more than one kind of telescope to see the light.”

—-Frank Gallinelli

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Your time and your investment capital are too valuable to risk on a do-it-yourself investment spreadsheet. For more than 30 years, RealData has provided the best and most reliable real estate investment software to help you make intelligent investment decisions and to create presentations you can confidently show to lenders, clients, and equity partners. Learn more at www.realdata.com.

Crowdfunding Real Estate Investments

Pooling of resources, passing the hat — call it what you will, but collaborative underwriting has probably been around for a couple of centuries. Never one to leave well enough alone, the internet has again risen to the role of game-changer, extending a global reach to individuals and companies looking for backers.

You have probably heard of the crowdfunder Kickstarter, which is a popular donation-based site, aimed primarily at creative projects. Backers who donate to such projects don’t become shareholders or expect any financial return. They may be more akin to patrons than to investors.

But investment-based crowdfunding sites have also emerged. I can’t say that I knew much about them, but I recently attended the annual Yale Alumni Real Estate Association’s National Conference where one of the sessions was devoted to this subject, with presentations by two of the top players in this field: Daniel Miller of Fundrise and Rodrigo Nino of Prodigy Network.

Although this method of funding real estate projects may be just a blip on the radar at present, it does appear that more and more real estate crowdfunding sites like these are cropping up and deals actually are getting funded. So just what is this all about and how is it supposed to work? I’ve tried to take what I learned at the Yale conference and have expanded on it a bit; and so, the following are a few observations from an interested outsider.

For the Project Developer Seeking Financing

Among the top arguments for crowdfunding a real estate project are these:

• It offers an opportunity to get a project financed more quickly and easily than it would through more conventional channels.
• By eliminating some of the middlemen usually involved, it can lower transaction costs.

The arguments seem credible, since most bank and institutional financing has become a test of endurance. Some crowdfunding sites offer both debt and equity investments, and most are quite specific as to the types of properties with which they deal. The process may not be entirely a walk in the park, because the typical site screens developers by taking them through a rigorous application and evaluation process.

For the Investor

One attraction for investors is that they typically don’t have to pony up a huge commitment to participate in a single project. Hence, they could spread smaller chunks of cash among several properties or even several developers, thus spreading their risk.

There would appear to be a few murky areas, however. Successful commercial real estate investors generally apply a laser focus on their due diligence. In a crowdfunded scenario one should expect that the developer will be doing that, carefully vetting the property and supplying detailed financial information and projections to the potential investor; but how much detail will they provide and can the investor independently verify that information? With the proliferation of crowdfunding sites, will there be consistency among them in the amount and quality of data they provide? A prudent investor must be certain at least to take a very careful look at the track record of the developer.

Investing through crowdfunding may have particular appeal to inexperienced investors. They should be particularly cautious, understanding that there is not likely to be any liquidity, that their cash could be tied up for a considerable time, and of course that there is no guarantee of an acceptable return or of recovering the initial investment. Sometimes deals simply fail.

How is Crowdfunding Even Possible?

It should come as no surprise that there are plenty of regulations that govern these investment offerings. It appears that most of the crowdfunding sites have been operating under SEC Regulation D, which limits general solicitation and restricts participation to “accredited investors.” These generally include investors with a net worth of at least \$1 million (not including the value of their home) and income of \$200,000 for the past two years, or \$300,000 together with spouse.

One site, which at present seems to be unique, is Fundrise. They have been able to use an obscure SEC Regulation A that allows non-accredited investors to participate in community-based deals with investments as little as \$100. There is apparently plenty of hoop-jumping for them to deal with, since this regulation also involves state approvals as well as a limit on capital that can be raised in a 12-month period.

In 2012, Congress passed the JOBS Act (Jumpstart Our Business Startups)  and in September 2013, Title II of that act became effective. Title II allows general solicitation, but only to accredited investors.

Title III of the JOBS Act is called the “Crowdfunding Exemption.” Expected to work its way through the SEC rule-making process sometime later this year, it would allow non-accredited investors to participate in equity offerings. The proponents of investment crowdfunding see this as the real game-changer.

Conclusion

Crowdfunding could revolutionize how real estate investments are financed, but not everyone is convinced that it is the Next Big Thing. A recent BusinessWire article cites a number of concerns, including one that this writer has seen elsewhere:  “Will crowdfunding expose innocent, small-time investors to fraudsters and scam artists?”

Both real estate crowdfunding itself and the regulatory environment that will govern it are in their infancy, so how this will all play out must be a matter of conjecture for now. On the one hand, the real estate industry — to put it as politely as possible — has a long history of being resistant to change. On the other, technology in the 21st century has had a habit of sweeping away things that we confidently viewed as permanent cultural fixtures. To be convinced, I need only to rummage in my basement to dig out my old rotary-dial wall phone and my case of incandescent lightbulbs.

Time will tell the story.

—- Frank Gallinelli

Crowdfunding’s Latest Invasion: Real Estate

How Crowdfunding Could Reshape Real Estate Investing

The Big Five in Real Estate Crowdfunding

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Your time and your investment capital are too valuable to risk on a do-it-yourself investment spreadsheet. For more than 30 years, RealData has provided the best and most reliable real estate investment software to help you make intelligent investment decisions and to create presentations you can confidently show to lenders, clients, and equity partners. Learn more at www.realdata.com.

How to Look at Reserves for Replacement When You Invest in Income-Property

It may sound like a nit-picking detail: Where and how do you account for “reserves for replacement” when you try to value – and evaluate – a potential income-property investment? Isn’t this something your accountant sorts out when it’s time to do your tax return? Not really, and how you choose to handle it may have a meaningful impact on your investment decision-making process.

What are “Reserves for Replacement?”

Nothing lasts forever. While that observation may seem to be better suited to a discourse in philosophy, it also has practical application in regard to your property. Think HVAC system, roof, paving, elevator, etc. The question is simply when, not if, these and similar items will wear out.

A prudent investor may wish to put money away for the eventual rainy day (again, the roof comes to mind) when he or she will have to incur a significant capital expense. That investor may plan to move a certain amount of the property’s cash flow into a reserve account each year. Also, a lender may require the buyer of a property to fund a reserve account at the time of acquisition, particularly if there is an obvious need for capital improvements in the near future.

Such an account may go by a variety of names, the most common being “reserves for replacement,” “funded reserves,” or “capex (i.e., capital expenditures) reserves.”

Where do “Reserves for Replacement” Fit into Your Property Analysis?

This apparently simple concept gets tricky when we raise the question, “Where do we put these reserves in our property’s financial analysis?” More specifically, should these reserves be a part of the Net Operating Income calculation, or do they belong below the NOI line? Let’s take a look at examples of these two scenarios.

Now let’s move the reserves above the NOI line.

The math here is pretty basic. Clearly, the NOI is lower in the second case because we are subtracting an extra item. Notice that the cash flow stays the same because the reserves are above the cash flow line in both cases.

Which Approach is Correct?

There is, for want of a better term, a standard approach to the handling capital reserves, although it may not be the preferred choice in every situation.

That approach, which you will find in most real estate finance texts (including mine), in the CCIM courses on commercial real estate, and in our Real Estate Investment Analysis software, is to put the reserves below the NOI – in other words, not to treat reserves as having any effect on the Net Operating Income.

This makes sense, I believe, for a number of reasons. First, NOI by definition is equal to revenue minus operating expenses, and it would be a stretch to classify reserves as an operating expense. Operating expenses are costs incurred in the day-to-day operation of a property, costs such as property taxes, insurance, and maintenance. Reserves don’t fit that description, and in fact would not be treated as a deductible expense on your taxes.

Perhaps even more telling is the fact that we expect the money spent on an expense to leave our possession and be delivered to a third party who is providing some product or service. Funds placed in reserve are not money spent, but rather funds taken out of one pocket and put into another. It is still our money, unspent.

What Difference Does It Make?

Why do we care about the NOI at all? One reason is that it is common to apply a capitalization rate to the NOI in order to estimate the property’s value at a given point in time. The formula is familiar to most investors:

Value = Net Operating Income / Cap Rate

Let’s assume that we’re going to use a 7% market capitalization rate and apply it to the NOI. If reserves are below the NOI line, as in the first example above, then this is what we get:

Value = 55,000 / 0.07

Value = 785,712

Now let’s move the reserves above the NOI line, as in the second example.

Value = 45,000 / 0.07

Value = 642,855

With this presumably non-standard approach, we have a lower NOI, and when we capitalize it at the same 7% our estimate of value drops to \$642,855. Changing how we account for these reserves has reduced our estimate of value by a significant amount, \$142,857.

Is Correct Always Right?

I invite you now to go out and get an appraisal on a piece of commercial property. Examine it, and there is a very good chance you will find the property’s NOI has been reduced by a reserves-for-replacement allowance. Haven’t these people read my books?

The reality, of course, is that diminishing the NOI by an allowance for reserves is a more conservative approach to valuation. Given the financial meltdown of 2008 and its connection to real estate lending, it is not at all surprising that lenders and appraisers prefer an abundance of caution. Constraining the NOI not only has the potential to reduce valuation, but also makes it more difficult to satisfy a lender’s required Debt Coverage Ratio. Recall the formula:

Debt Coverage Ratio = Net Operating Income / Annual Debt Service

In the first case, with a NOI of \$55,000, the DCR would equal 1.41. In the second, it would equal 1.15. If the lender required a DCR no less than 1.25 (a fairly common benchmark), the property would qualify in the first case, but not in the second.

It is worth keeping in mind that the estimate of value that is achieved by capitalizing the NOI depends, of course, on the cap rate that is used. Typically it is the so-called “market cap rate,” i.e., the rate at which similar properties in the same market have sold. It is essential to know the source of this cap rate data. Has it been based on NOIs that incorporate an allowance for reserves, or on the more standard approach, where the NOI is independent of reserves?

Obviously, there has to be consistency. If one chooses to reduce the NOI by the reserves, then one must use a market cap rate that is based on that same approach. If the source of market cap rate data is the community of brokers handling commercial transactions, then the odds are strong that the NOI used to build that market data did not incorporate reserves. It is likely that the brokers were trained to put reserves below the NOI line; in addition, they would have little incentive to look for ways to diminish the NOI and hence the estimate of market value.

The Bottom Line – One Investor’s Opinion

What I have described as the standard approach – where reserves are not a part of NOI – has stood for a very long time, and I would be loath to discard it. Doing so would seem to unravel the basic concept that Net Operating Income equals revenue net of operating expenses. It would also leave unanswered the question of what happens to the money placed in reserves. If it wasn’t spent then it still belongs to us, so how do we account for it?

At the same time, it would be foolish to ignore the reality that capital expenditures are likely to occur in the future, whether for improvements, replacement of equipment, or leasing costs.

For investors, perhaps the resolution is to recognize that, unlike an appraiser, we are not strictly concerned with nailing down a market valuation at a single point in time. Our interests extend beyond the closing and so perhaps we should broaden our field of vision. We should be more focused on the long term, the entire expected holding period of our investment – how will it perform, and does the price we pay justify the overall return we achieve?

Rather than a simple cap rate calculation, we may be better served by a Discounted Cash Flow analysis, where we can view that longer term, taking into account our financing costs, our funding of reserves, our utilization of those funds when needed, and the eventual recovery of unused reserves upon sale of the property.

In short, as investors, we may want not just to ask, “What is the market value today, based on capitalized NOI?” but rather, “What price makes sense in order to achieve the kind of return over time that we’re seeking?”

How do you treat reserves when you evaluate an income-property investment?

—-Frank Gallinelli

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Your time and your investment capital are too valuable to risk on a do-it-yourself investment spreadsheet. For more than 30 years, RealData has provided the best and most reliable real estate investment software to help you make intelligent investment decisions and to create presentations you can confidently show to lenders, clients, and equity partners. Learn more at www.realdata.com.

The 50% Rule vs. Discounted Cash Flow Analysis

I like to read the discussions in a number of online real estate investment forums to see what issues are of interest to investors at all levels of experience. One topic that seems to excite a lot of commentary concerns the relative merits, or lack thereof, of projecting and analyzing the potential future cash flows from an investment property—call it Discounted Cash Flow (DCF) or pro forma analysis. Since I’ve spent a good part of my professional life teaching on this subject and providing software tools to accomplish such analyses, discussions like these jump out at me; and my last post promised a follow-up to my discourse on the income stream, so the saga continues.

I frequently see people lament that a cash flow pro forma is basically pointless.  You can’t predict the future; more specifically you can’t predict what a property’s revenue or expenses will be in any given year, so why bother trying? It’s a waste of time, so they say. I think this is an unnecessarily nihilistic take on investing, reducing attempts at thoughtful analysis to the level of palm reading and tarot cards.

The 50% Rule

Recently I have seen a lot of mention of a so-called “50% rule” as an alternative to DCF. If I understand it correctly, this rule says, “Take the gross rent and subtract 50%. That’s your Net Operating Income. Subtract your debt service and that’s your cash flow.”

So, 50% is supposed to account for your vacancy loss, operating expenses, reserves, and capital costs. Actually, these last two items aren’t part of NOI, but why quibble?

Somehow I can’t shake off the image of Michelangelo creating the Sistine Chapel ceiling with a paint roller.  Same level of precision.

Clearly, one set percentage—50% or anything else—could not possibly be appropriate for all property types, even in the same market. You would not expect your percentage of operating expenses for a triple-net-leased single-tenant building to be the same as that for an office building. Even within one property type, would you bet the farm on the expense percentage for a 100-unit apartment complex to be identical to that of a 6-unit multi-family house?

Let’s grant that a certain expense percentage might be typical for a given property type in a given location. Would you really be comfortable using that percentage to make a specific purchase decision?  It might work out if you were buying the entire market, but would you risk your investment capital on the assumption that the one property you want to buy is truly typical of the entire market?

Sadly, I find too many investors dismiss the importance of doing a Discounted Cash Flow Analysis and opt instead for this sort of very simplified—dare I say oversimplified—approach. Such a technique might suffice as a general guideline for smaller properties, but when one gets involved with true income properties—larger residential or just about any size commercial investment—I don’t see how you can commit a serious amount of cash without performing a DCF analysis as part of your decision-making process.

Due Diligence and DCF

I talk a lot in my books, articles, and podcasts about the importance of due diligence; and that process is really at the heart of making an intelligent and informed cash flow projection. You cannot know your future operating costs precisely, nor perhaps your revenue; but you can certainly make reasonable estimates that are not just global generalities but are specific to the investment you’re considering. Keep in mind that due diligence for a real estate investment has two distinct parts:

• The property itself — What is the actual current revenue? Do the leases call for scheduled rent increases? What are the current, verified operating expenses, and what are reasonable estimates going forward? Does the physical condition of the property suggest capital expenditures will be needed during your expected holding period? Will you set aside reserves for those? What are the costs and terms of available financing for this property?
• The market — Properties don’t live in a vacuum, so market data is crucial.  What are the prevailing rents for this type of property in this market (i.e., what is the competition)? What are the local vacancy levels, cap rates, and general economic trends?

Next, use that data to project current performance along with best-case, worst-case, and in-between scenarios of future performance. This is where you start to take the investment’s vital signs: Under what circumstances will the cash flow be adequate, is the debt coverage ratio strong enough to secure financing with a given down payment, what if a commercial tenant’s shaky business fails before their lease expires?

Use the projections not only to make a decision about an appropriate price and terms for the property, but also use the DCF to demonstrate (i.e., “sell”) your reasoning to the other parties involved in the transaction: to the seller if you’re the buyer, the buyer if you’re the seller; to the lender; or to your potential equity partners.

Investment is all about balancing risk and reward; and these, in turn, require a willingness to make investment decisions in an environment where you necessarily have to work with incomplete or imperfect information. If there were no uncertainties, then everyone would be a winner.

Uncertainties such as these, however, are in the context of the actual property and the actual market. They are not the random application of a universal constant that has no particular connection to the investment under consideration. Buying and operating an investment property involves commitment, and that should start with a thorough financial analysis. Projecting the potential future performance of an investment property, especially with multiple scenarios, is the best way to make an informed and intelligent decision.

— Frank Gallinelli

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Your time and your investment capital are too valuable to risk on a do-it-yourself investment spreadsheet. For more than 30 years, RealData has provided the best and most reliable real estate investment software to help you make intelligent investment decisions and to create presentations you can confidently show to lenders, clients, and equity partners. Learn more at www.realdata.com.

The One Key Concept All Real Estate Investors Should Understand

If there is one concept that lies at the heart of all investing, especially investment in income-producing real estate — aka “rental property” — then that concept is the income stream. I pound on this idea incessantly in my books, in my grad-school classes, in the check-out line at the supermarket — anywhere I think there is a chance that folks might listen.

The concept is straightforward enough. Each factor about a property that we might assume is crucial — its location, its physical condition, its tenancies — is indeed important, but only to the extent that it affects that property’s income stream. A good location, for example, increases the likelihood of a strong flow of income, especially when we want to resell. Poor physical condition may impair our ability to attract and keep good tenants and to maximize rents. So, the usual suspects notwithstanding, ultimately what really matters to us is the income stream that the property can produce.

What exactly do we mean by “income stream?” Essentially we mean all the cash that comes in minus all that goes out between the time we acquire the property and the time we dispose of it. Not to be overlooked is the initial cash that we commit when we make the purchase. Then, as we own and operate the property, we will have recurring cash flows (revenue minus operating, financing and capital costs) — all positive cash flows, we hope. Finally, when we sell, we look to receive a nice chunk of net cash proceeds after paying off our mortgage and costs of sale.

Our income stream, therefore, is a series of cash flows that occur from the day we purchase until the day we sell. When we buy a rental property we may think we’re acquiring a building, but what we’re really buying is its income stream.

How much is that income stream worth? Is it merely the sum and difference of all the individual cash flows?  This is where experienced investors recognize that there is a time value of money. Put simply, the longer we have to wait to receive a cash flow, the less valuable it is to us. Why? Because we don’t have the use of that money to earn a return elsewhere.

When we look at the expected series of future cash flows from a property, including the cash from resale, we need to look not only at the amounts but also at the timing. How much do we expect to receive and when will we receive it? This is what investors call a discounted cash flow analysis (DCF), and it is key to making an informed decision about investing in an income property. We’ll talk more about DCF and other key investment metrics in future posts. Stay tuned.

— Frank Gallinelli

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Your time and your investment capital are too valuable to risk on a do-it-yourself investment spreadsheet. For more than 30 years, RealData has provided the best and most reliable real estate investment software to help you make intelligent investment decisions and to create presentations you can confidently show to lenders, clients, and equity partners. Learn more at www.realdata.com.

The Cash-on-Cash Conundrum, Part 2

In the first part of our discussion, you looked at the simple math that underlies Cash-on-Cash Return. The short version goes like this:  First you calculate your property’s first-year cash flow before taxes—essentially all the cash that comes in from operating the property minus all the cash that goes out. Then you divide that by your initial cash investment, and that percentage is your Cash-on-Cash Return. Nothing could be simpler.

Simplicity is a good part of CoC’s appeal. Unfortunately, that is also part of its weakness. If you are using this metric to help you decide whether a potential income-property purchase is a promising investment or not, then you need to look carefully at the story—or stories—that may lurk behind these numbers. In keeping with our literary metaphor, let’s call them our subplots.

Subplot #1: A Point in Time

Clearly, when you take the first-year’s cash flow and divide it by the cash used to purchase, you are looking at a property’s performance essentially at a point in time, a single year. To be sure, the reliability of your cash flow projection is likely to be greatest in that one, immediate time frame. I often hear investors say that they are not comfortable trying to predict the future, that they would rather just look at what is happening now; and they are quite justified in saying that if the return looks grim or perhaps negative right out of the box, then they have no interest in looking further.

Understandable, but potentially shortsighted—literally. By looking at a single year, you are looking at what may be an improbable investment horizon.  Will you keep this property for just one year? If not, if you plan to hold on to it longer, then you’re not taking into account anything having to do with its possible future performance.  Do you believe each future year will be exactly like this year, or could reasonably anticipated changes in cash flow (such as schedule increases in commercial lease rents, or large expenditures for needed repairs) push the needle far to one end or the other?

Subplot #2: The Time Value of Money

“All right,” you say, “then I’ll estimate the Cash-on-Cash Return for each of the next several years.” That may look like a step in the right direction, and I talk to a lot of folks who insist on doing just that, but it won’t take into account the time value of money.  You’ll be looking at the face value (undiscounted) of expected future cash flows, and weighing them against the present value of your cash investment today. Go back to that original example, where you invested \$100,000. If you predict a \$20,000 cash flow ten years from now, does that really mean your investment is returning 20%?

To be fair, future-year Cash-on-Cash can impart some useful information. For example, if the metric is both positive and increasing, then you can infer that your cash flow is improving each year. The trend can help inform your decision, but the actual percentage return may not have a great deal of meaning.

Subplot #3: Smoke and Mirrors

You retreat and say, “OK, let’s go back to thinking about just the first year of operation. Surely the Cash-on-Cash should give me a good sense of initial performance.” Do you remember the old computer chestnut, “Garbage in, garbage out?” Your results are only as good as the assumptions and data that you put in the dispose-all, and perhaps things aren’t always (or ever) what they seem.

Consider:

You are looking at in income-and-expense statement (what we call an APOD in real estate investing—Annual Property Operating Data) provided by the seller of the property. The cash flow is based, in part, on operating expenses, one of which is Maintenance and Repairs. The figure in the example above is \$6,000; you secure the owner’s tax return and confirm that this is indeed the figure he declared.

That is how much he actually spent, but the figure seems a bit low to you. Does it mean the owner performed as little maintenance as he could get away with and never fixed anything until it was absolutely necessary?  Perhaps the owner did this to prop up the property’s cash flow in anticipation of selling. Despite the fact that the expense disclosed is technically correct, you decide you shouldn’t use it as a forward-looking assumption. Instead, you will probably have to project spending more once you take ownership, resulting in a diminished cash flow and a lower Cash-on-Cash Return. In addition, the property may actually be worth less than you assumed, since it does not throw off as much net income as you were led to believe.

Now take a different point of view. Based on your experience, you think the maintenance and repair expenditure shown is surprisingly high. Could there be an explanation for that? Perhaps the owner used the past year to catch up on deferred maintenance so the property would look more presentable when he put it up for sale.  You might be tempted (but only in your most private thoughts) to test the impact of lower maintenance costs on your cash flow and CoC return.  Once again, the amount that was disclosed, although correct, may not be the amount that gives you the best estimate of future cash flow or Cash-on-Cash Return.

Subplot #4: The Forecast—Cloudy, with a Chance of Cash Flow

Finally, there is the larger issue of the structure of the cash flow statement itself. What you decide to include or exclude in your forecast of future cash flow will almost certainly be driven by your personal agenda in creating that cash flow statement.  Are you the seller of the property, looking to make its income stream appear as strong as possible? Are you the buyer, trying to make a realistic projection of how this property will really perform, and perhaps also conveying that stark realism back to the seller as part of your price negotiation?

In either case—as well as in any of several others, such as buyer looking for financing, general partner looking for equity investors, etc.—you might be putting a bit of a spin on the data, the better to support your point of view and the message you want to deliver.

If you’re the seller, then a bit of topspin seems like a good idea to you. In the example shown in Part 1 of this discussion, you might argue that, not only did you provide accurate and verifiable income and expense data, but that you were being exceptionally open and above-board by suggesting an allowance for vacancy and credit loss even though you experienced no such loss.  Group hug.

But if you’re the buyer, you might return this with some backspin. You thank the seller for being so forthright, but add that you believe the vacancy and credit loss allowance should be closer to 5%, not 3%. In addition, you point out that routine maintenance is great, but will not prevent big-ticket items from wearing out eventually. For example, the heating boiler is barely hanging on, and the flat roof has less than 10 years of life left in it. Hence you propose reconstructing the cash flow statement to reflect the higher vacancy allowance, as well as need for an immediate capital improvement and an ongoing set-aside of cash flow into a reserve account to deal with future replacements, such as the roof.

What previously was a robust 10.4% return now becomes an anemic 2.1%.

The seller objects that this isn’t entirely fair, since the boiler repair is a one-off event, and removing that cost would bring us up to 6.1%.

The seller’s argument cycles you right back to Subplot #1 about the hazards of relying on a rate-of-return metric that looks only at a point in time in what is probably going to be a long-term investment.

Is There a Bottom Line?

What should you conclude about Cash-on-Cash Return? Is it, as some contend, the only metric worth looking at?  Is it of no use at all? The best answer probably lies somewhere in between, that you need to recognize both CoC’s strengths and its limitations, and not rely on it as your sole investment decision-making tool.

On the plus side:

• It is quick and easy to calculate.
• It can give an immediate comparison to the return on other short-term investments.
• It focuses on the most current performance of the property; the more recent the data, the more likely it is to be reliable.

Among the negatives:

• It focuses on single point in time; you may be intending to buy and hold for an extended period, and the future performance of the property can differ greatly from the short term.
• It does not take into account the time value of money; if you use it beyond the current period, you may be comparing a future, undiscounted cash flow to the amount invested today.
• It is easy to manipulate the results; hence, a novice investor who relies on this metric alone can be misled by what a third party chooses to include or exclude from a property’s cash flow statement.

So are there some bottom-line recommendations here?  Of course.

Start off by trying to develop a CoC calculation in which you can have reasonable confidence.

To do so, remember that there is no substitute for due diligence. At the most basic level, you need to confirm whether the data you see on the cash flow statement for a particular property is reasonable and accurate. Then you need to go further and examine the physical property and the market to see if there are issues that may affect your confidence in those numbers. Is there any reason to doubt that the current revenue stream will continue as it is now? Is the demand for space in this market changing, for good or ill? Is there deferred maintenance that you will have to deal with? Based on what you find, you may have to reconstruct that cash flow statement.

Don’t just look at what is on the cash flow statement; look for what might be missing. A seller may not volunteer an allowance for vacancy or a need to fund a reserve account, but such items are going to be part of your reality as an owner.

So long as you approach it with sufficient care and due diligence, the Cash-on-Cash Return can give you a useful first look at how a property might perform; but before you commit your investment dollars, you need to do more.

If you plan to operate this property for several years, then you need to take the long view. You should identify your likely investment horizon, and then build a series of pro formas to forecast how the property might perform over time.

A series? Yes. Don’t try to nail your projections of future performance in one pass. Do a best-case, worst-case, and in-between forecast of future cash flows and ultimate resale of the property. Look at the ongoing Debt Coverage Ratio in each case. Examine the IRR or MIRR. Even compare this property to others you might be able to acquire.

Be thorough. Be wary of shortcuts. You’re buying a future income stream; do your homework and run your numbers so you can understand just what it is that you’re buying.  Your investment success depends on it.

— Frank Gallinelli

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Your time and your investment capital are too valuable to risk on a do-it-yourself investment spreadsheet. For more than 30 years, RealData has provided the best and most reliable real estate investment software to help you make intelligent investment decisions and to create presentations you can confidently show to lenders, clients, and equity partners. Learn more at www.realdata.com.

The Cash-on-Cash Conundrum, Part 1

Life is too complicated; we have too many choices, too many options, too many channels on cable TV. It’s not surprising that sometimes we crave simple answers to complex questions.

I see that mindset very often in my interactions with real estate investors. They yearn to embrace the “50% rule” or the “2% rule” or some other shortcut that will help them cut to the chase and decide if a particular property is a good deal or not.

One metric that is relatively simple and historically very popular is the Cash-on-Cash Return (CoC). I encounter many real estate investors (more than a few of whom have a net worth significantly greater than that of this writer) who zero in on that metric like a heat-seeking missile whenever they consider buying a property.  What exactly is Cash-on-Cash Return? How do you calculate it? What are its strengths and weaknesses? Is it a good metric, and perhaps more important, is it good enough?

Cash-on-Cash Return may be one of the few bits of financial terminology whose name could almost serve as its definition. You’re expecting to get a cash return on your cash invested, i.e., to earn cash on your cash. If you express the return as a percentage of the amount invested, then you have the Cash-on-Cash metric.

Let’s see this with some actual numbers.  You are considering the purchase of a particular income property. For this discussion, the purchase price of the property is not the number you want to focus on. Rather, it’s the amount of your own money—the cash you actually put on the table—that you’ll be looking at. You need \$100,000 to close the deal.

You’ve obtained information about the rental income, the operating expenses and the expense reimbursements paid by the tenants. To that information you’ve added your own allowance for vacancy and credit loss, as well as your expected annual debt service on the mortgage that you’ll need to complete the purchase. You put this all together into a cash flow statement that looks like this:

Now you do the cash-on-cash math:

So now you see your Cash-on-Cash Return is apparently 10.4%. What are you to make of this?

First, you recognize that this was a very quick and easy calculation to perform. You needed just the amount of your cash investment and some basic information about anticipated revenues and expenditures. No heavy lifting here.

Second, you observe that your cash-on-cash (and therefore your cash flow) is a positive number. That’s really important, because it means you don’t expect to reach into your own pocket to pay the bills. You have more coming in than going out.

Third, you recognize that this really quick calculation allows you to compare the first-year return on this investment to that of other short-term opportunities like CDs or T-Bills. You look at 10.4% and that strikes you as a fairly good rate of return.

In short, your initial take here is that this metric was really easy to calculate; that it told you that the property seemed likely to enjoy a positive cash flow in the first year; and that the rate of return on your cash investment appeared to be significantly better than you might get from a bank or a bond.

Are you satisfied that you can make an informed decision to buy or not to buy this property based on your calculations here? You shouldn’t be. Yes, you believe the rent and expense figures are accurate, and you did the math correctly, but are you confident that you’re seeing the complete picture? My continual mantra to my finance students is, “Look beyond the numbers, look for the story that’s behind what you see on the surface.”

It’s tempting to think that this calculation of cash-on-cash has given you an adequate perspective on how this investment will perform, but there is really a great deal more to look at and to think about here. That’s what we’ll do in the next installment.

— Frank Gallinelli

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Your time and your investment capital are too valuable to risk on a do-it-yourself investment spreadsheet. For more than 30 years, RealData has provided the best and most reliable real estate investment software to help you make intelligent investment decisions and to create presentations you can confidently show to lenders, clients, and equity partners. Learn more at www.realdata.com.

Real Estate Investing: Time to Remember the Lessons of History

As the summer 2013 begins to cool off, many real estate markets are finally starting to heat up. For a lot of folks, who have slogged through five of the worst economic years in memory, it feels a bit like we’ve just been released from the locked trunk of a car.

The temptation now is to celebrate our release from investing confinement by jumping back into the market with both feet. Before we do so, however, it would be wise to reflect on a few of the lessons of recent history.

There were many reasons for the financial meltdown, but one of the biggest surely was the belief that real estate inexorably increases in value over time. To many people, that looked like a law of nature. The reality turned out to be different, and now, as property values start to rise, we have to resist the temptation to start believing this all over again. If not, we will simply create another bubble and repeat the cycle.

Another cause of that meltdown was the tendency to dismiss or completely ignore investment fundamentals.  Real estate simply couldn’t fail to do well (after all, they’re not making any more of it), and we didn’t really need to think too hard about our investments because, surely, they would work out happily in the end.

Savvy investors always knew that this wasn’t necessarily true; they knew that income-producing real estate could go up, down, or sideways.  Time, all by itself, does not create value; the ability of a property to produce income is what creates value, and so the prudent investor would take nothing for granted and always carefully weigh a property’s prospects for generating income today and in the future.

The beginnings of a general economic recoveryand, in particular, a real estate recovery may signal that we can and should get back into the game, but it doesn’t mean that we can return to pre-2008 thinking and disregard the fundamentals that ought to guide our investment decisions:  For example:

Due Diligence: This is just as important in good times as in bad. We need to examine thoroughly and critically all of the financial data we can get our hands on about a potential investment property.  Are the rents really as represented? Are the operating expenses as portrayed by the seller reasonable and complete? Have we done a thorough assessment of the property’s physical condition?

It is essential to remember that a property doesn’t live in a vaccum, so our due diligence needs to extend beyond the individual property and include the local market as well.  What is the prevailing capitalization rate for properties of this type in this market? What kind of rents are similar buildings actually getting, and what are the asking rents in properties that may be in competition with us for tenants? What is the current vacancy rate in this market, and has it been rising or falling? What is the general business climate, and in what direction is it headed?

Cash Flow:    We always need to make hard-headed projections about the prospects for current and future cash flow. Too often we see investors, motivated to make a purchase and get on the presumed gravy train, put together the numbers they want to see.  They ignore the potential for vacancy and credit loss. They ignore setting some of their potential cash flow aside each year as a reserve to pay for that new roof or new HVAC system a few years down the road. We should make best-case, worst-case, and in-between projections to give ourselves a sense of the range of possible outcomes.

It is important to be realistic about cash flow projections. Excessive leverage may seem like a great advantage on the day you close the purchase, but the high debt service may also result in very weak or even negative cash flow. Are you really prepared to support your property out of your own pocket, to absorb unexpected expenses or loss of revenue?

The Long View: We seldom buy an income property with the expectation of flipping it for short-term profit. Rather, our plan is probably to buy and hold so we can derive an annual cash flow plus a long-term gain when we sell. If that is indeed our plan, then we need to forecast the property’s performance not just for one year, but for a likely holding period—perhaps five, seven or ten years—and to compute an Internal Rate of Return for that holding period. Doing so can be especially valuable when we are looking at more than one property that we might purchase.  Which one appears likely to give us the best overall return within our investment horizon?

The Last Word: Investing in real estate can be a profitable move in just about any economic climate if we proceed wisely, so to answer our initial question: Yes—if we’ve been on the sidelines, then this is a fine time to get back in.  But as with any other kind of investment, we can just as easily lose money as make it if we charge ahead without doing our homework and without going through the kind of fundamental analysis and projection that is essential to smart investing. Success in real estate investing, as in most endeavors, doesn’t just happen by good luck or chance. We have to work at it and have our head in the game. The luck will follow.

— Frank Gallinelli

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Your time and your investment capital are too valuable to risk on a do-it-yourself investment spreadsheet. For more than 30 years, RealData has provided the best and most reliable real estate investment software to help you make intelligent investment decisions and to create presentations you can confidently show to lenders, clients, and equity partners. Learn more at www.realdata.com.

April 1: RealData Announces New Sales Prevention Initiative

April 1, 2013, For Immediate Release: RealData Announces New Sales Prevention Initiative

In an attempt to stem the inexorable tide of its growing popularity, RealData announced today the formation of a new Sales Prevention Department within the company. “Quite simply, it is time for us to take the bull by the tail,” said company founder and President Frank Gallinelli. We can’t allow these sales increases to go unchecked, so we have assembled a new mismanagement team to deal with the problem. Once we get sales under control, we believe we can go from there to put an end to productivity once and for all.”

Heading the new team will be a specialist in customer alienation. According to Gallinelli, the company needs salespeople who are unencumbered by product knowledge or professional expertise, and technical support personnel who can be relied on to provide cryptic and irrelevant responses or to ignore customer questions entirely. “We need to put the ‘us’ back into user-friendly. There’s no room in the software business for customers who can’t take care of themselves.”

Galvanized by their mantra — “Don’t swim with the sharks, float with the flounder!” —-the team has already begun work on the company’s new support infrastructure called, “FAQ – Frequently Avoided Questions.” Said the CEO, “We must strive to please none of the people all of the time.”

The company’s sales prevention initiative is expected to last throughout most of April 1. 😉